In 2013, the legislature created a commission to study “the most reliable protocols for assessing and managing the risk of recidivism of sex offenders.” The Commission began meeting last fall.
State Representative Paul Brodeur and I are co-chairing the Commission. The Commission members include some very knowledgeable academics and professionals and we are running it as openly as possible to include a broad array of voices. Our goal is to make recommendations that will better protect the public from dangerous people, while being fair to offenders who pose little risk. You can follow our proceedings at commissiononsexoffenderrecidiv
The subject is difficult and emotional and we are trying to proceed in a step-by-step way to gather a full understanding of the subject before we reach any conclusions about public policy. So far, we have learned some of the basic ideas about the psychology of sex offenders.
First, the category “sex offender” includes some very diverse people: Some who have made one bad mistake; others who have committed the same kind of offense dozens or hundreds of time. Some who have abnormal love interests; some who don’t love at all, but commit sex offenses purely for selfish gratification. Some who struggle to control their urges and want all the help they can get to live right; some who offend with no regrets. Some who will inevitably reoffend and others who will never reoffend.
Second, the scientific study of sex offenders over the past century has yielded some predictive tools — methods of scoring offenders to identify those most likely to reoffend. One of the best known is the “Static-99”. It assigns risk points for factors like prior similar offenses, young age, lack of stable love relationships, victims who are strangers. Those offenders with the most points are the most likely to reoffend.
Instruments like the Static-99 do better at sorting out offenders than do professionals applying their own experience and judgment. Studies show, that when professionals are allowed to introduce their own opinions into the scoring process, they tend to reduce the accuracy of the predictions. One still needs professionals to identify the risk indicators, but statistical approaches are more accurate than gut judgment at adding up the risk indicators.
Third, and this is the discouraging point, none of those tools have very high accuracy — they typically have both high false positive and high false negative rates. For adult offenders, even the best statistical tools, which are better than the best human professionals at predicting recidivism, are blunt instruments. And for juvenile offenders, our predictive tools still do little better than chance.
With this perspective we are just now starting to turn our meetings towards an understanding of how the system in Massachusetts is actually working. The system includes the basic criminal justice system — courts, probation, prisons, parole — but also includes three special additional elements for sex offenders: Registration, civil commitment, and life-time parole.
Offenders can be civilly committed to treatment for one day to life (after already having served time in prison) if they are found beyond a reasonable doubt to be “likely” to reoffend. That is not an easy thing to prove and civil commitment applies to a very small subset of convicted sex offenders. The major alternative to civil commitment, community life-time parole, was recently found to be unconstitutional.
With civil commitment rare and life-time parole not an available tool, once they have completed their criminal sentence, the vast majority of convicted sex offenders are only subject to registration and receive no special support or oversight. That raises a real question for the commission — can we find ways to better protect the public? We have lots more work to do.